Located near the middle of Florida’s Gulf Coast, the twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg constitute one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States, with a combined population of close to 3 million. The area is drawing an ever-increasing number of visitors, too, with its rich cultural life, excellent restaurants and fine climate. However, the two cities have very different personalities due to their respective histories.
After the United States bought Florida from Spain in 1819, the Army built Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay, one of the country’s best natural harbors. Tampa grew up around it. The city really took off after the Civil War, with the discovery of phosphate deposits. And from 1884, businessman Henry B. Plant’s railroad connected Tampa to the rest of the country. In 1885, the Spanish tobacco merchant Vicente Martinez-Ybor moved his cigar factory from Key West to Tampa, and Ybor City, a purpose-built cigar-rolling factory town, attracted immigrants from Spain, Italy and Cuba. Today, Tampa has a diverse economy based on finance, health care, shipping and tourism.
Across the bay from Tampa on the Gulf of Mexico, St. Petersburg first boomed in the 1880s, when two entrepreneurs, John Williams and Peter Demens (Demens was born in St. Petersburg in Russia and named the new town after his birthplace), constructed a railroad that opened it to tourism. They built the historic Hotel Detroit, and the city’s gentle climate and beautiful beaches soon attracted throngs of vacationers. After World War II, St. Petersburg became a popular place to retire.